HSUS announced this week a lawsuit against USDA over intellectual property payments the National Pork Board makes to the National Pork Producers Council.
One thing you have to give the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) is that the organization is consistent. HSUS has made it clear – oppose us and you will pay a price.
That’s essentially what HSUS telegraphed when it provided the money and intellectual capital to allow the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) and Mike Callicrate to sue the national beef checkoff. HSUS made it clear the move was payback for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) having thwarted the HSUS effort in Congress to pass poultry legislation in the 2012 session. Of course, NCBA wasn’t alone; the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) was also instrumental in helping defeat the HSUS legislation.
So it came as no surprise this week when HSUS announced it is suing USDA over the payments that NPPC receives via the national pork checkoff. Admittedly, there was very little of the populist rhetoric that was employed with last month’s lawsuit against the national beef checkoff; there were no claims about protecting the interest of producers, for instance.
HSUS, however, was pretty open that its latest action in the courts is payback for opposing the poultry legislation. HSUS was able to find a single pork producer, as they did with Callicrate in the beef checkoff suit, to serve as a front man for the action.
HSUS’s lawsuit is over the intellectual property payments that the National Pork Board, the USDA-appointed body that oversees the national pork checkoff, makes to the NPPC for the rights to the slogan “Pork, The Other White Meat,” which NPPC owns. HSUS claims the payment is too high and is illegal, as it’s just a way to funnel checkoff dollars toward lobbying, which the Act and Order forbids. But the HSUS press release announcing the lawsuit made it clear that its legal action was mainly payback for NPPC’s support of sow gestation stalls, which HSUS opposes.
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The “Other White Meat” campaign is one of the most successful advertising campaigns ever employed by a commodity product. Though the National Pork Board has moved to a new marketing slogan, consumers still identify and remember the tag line, which was replaced with “Pork. Be Inspired” a few years back. In fact, the “White Meat” campaign was so successful that it caused the U.S. beef industry conniptions because it seemed to denigrate red meat at the same time it pushed the acceptability of pork.
I suppose the bottom-line question is whether the agreement for NPPC’s intellectual property is fair or not? Personally, I find the value of phrases, naming rights and intellectual property a little incredulous. At the same time, however, I also acknowledge that the phrase “pink slime” was a game changer for lean finely textured beef. And, obviously, the success of numerous products underscores the effectiveness of the billions spent on marketing slogans.
It’s true that a total of $60 million over 20 years is a lot of money, but we see astronomical figures being paid for the naming rights of sports stadiums and it looks insignificant. Forbes magazine recently published an article estimating the trademark value for companies like Google, AT&T, Apple and GE, and the values ranged from $20-$35 billion dollars – yes, with a “B.”
HSUS is not foolish enough to try and challenge intellectual property right laws, while NPPC has every right to sell the rights to use the slogan it owns. But HSUS will try and make the case that the National Pork Board’s payment to NPPC is designed to circumvent the laws surrounding the checkoff. Much like OCM and Callicrate’s beef lawsuit, the action may not be as much about winning the lawsuit as forcing the opponent to defend it. The defense will likely involve millions of dollars that the pork industry thus won’t be able to spend on lobbying.
The big difference between the pork and beef checkoff lawsuits is that HSUS is actually a party to the pork lawsuit. They have abandoned the rhetoric that HSUS was somehow doing this to benefit producers. If there was ever any doubt, the second suit makes it clear that HSUS is committed to bringing about the demise of the checkoff programs, or at the least harming the entities that have opposed their attacks on the livestock industry. Any dollars siphoned away from these commodity groups in legal defense costs means those dollars aren’t available for use in fighting HSUS in the legislative arena.
It appears that the beef and pork checkoffs are under a full assault by HSUS, and the entities that represent the largest number of producers will be forced to fight for the checkoffs or give up any role in the checkoff programs. If the activist efforts are successful, the effect is that mainstream producers will have to leave the governance and control of the checkoffs in the hands of a very small minority.
The U.S. pork industry is very concentrated, which means the vast majority of its checkoff assessments originate from a rather limited number of producers. The Pork Act & Order is mandatory, but if it were ever rescinded, the pork industry probably wouldn't find it hard to fund its promotion and research efforts via other means. Ironically, this would be a disaster for HSUS because the restrictions prohibiting lobbying under the current Act & Order would be removed.
The cattle industry, however, would find it much more difficult to fund demand-building activities, given the number of producers. But if HSUS is successful in eliminating any input by mainstream producers, it’s likely the beef industry might look at alternative funding resources as well.
The logic for the checkoff programs is obvious, and the programs’ successes in building demand has been phenomenal. But it’s doubtful that the large producer groups will be able to continue to spend millions defending these programs from legal attacks from deep-pocketed groups like HSUS. We may see the end of the federally mandated checkoff programs as a result.